The sweatshirt has one of the least glamorous names in clothing but luckily, this classic item is not as lowly as its name suggests. It is more applicable than ever nowadays, going from gym to office, breakfast to dinner. And while it is a default choice for couch mode—is there a better shirt for battling a flu or hangover?—this sporty piece is increasingly appearing in dignified and dynamic surroundings, too.
A lot of this is a new scene for the sweatshirt. The piece originated in the early 20th century, long before its spotlight moments on the likes of Rocky Balboa and Mark Zuckerberg. Just which manufacturer was the first to make it is a matter of some dispute. One thing that is clear, though, is that by 1925 the Merriam-Webster dictionary was defining “sweatshirt” as a gray cotton pullover.
It’s become more colorful since then, in several ways. But the sweatshirt’s terrain was originally much more limited than now—basically, to the athletic field. (This was a time, remember, when professional men rarely removed so much as their jackets in the workplace.) It dominated the gridiron in particular, where American football players paired sweatshirts with spiked boots and leather headgear for their muddy, bloody scrums. The cotton fabric was plush and comfortable to be active in in, and lacked the scratchiness of traditional wool sweaters. Other athletes adopted it as their training jersey of choice, especially in cooler conditions, and by the sixties schools and sports teams were emblazoning their names and logos on them. A sweatshirt was by this point a mainstream way of announcing affiliations, including romantic ones, and gained significant traction as a style piece the moment co-eds began borrowing them en masse from their boyfriends.
In the next chapter comes a wrinkle. Sweatshirts went from the realm of traditional, sporty manhood and into the counterculture. We’re talking mostly about hoodies here, with their obscuring cowl and don’t-bug-me vibe. The seventies and eighties saw Southern California skaters and New York City street artists adopting them for purposes that went beyond mere fashion statement—both groups practiced creative pursuits the law did not necessarily approve of, and if their rebelliously informal, tribe-identifying top of choice could also hood their faces from the cops, so much the better.
For hip-hop culture of the eighties and nineties, the sweatshirt was shorthand for street-level authenticity. Even as that very eighties type, the yuppie, favored the sweatshirt for his morning jog and wholesome games of backyard football, it also informed the signature look of The Notorious B.I.G. and the Wu-Tang Clan. Tracksuits started to eclipse sweatshirts in the hip-hop uniform. Sweatshirts gained yardage on the sweater during the early-aughts preppy revival—pair with a collared shirt and chinos and you’ve got a great look for the modern office. They also became huge in the Silicon Valley; whether out of pride or preference, many a multi-millionaire tech baron prefers a casual cotton top. Maybe nostalgia for the 12-hour coding sessions of their youth—grueling, albeit not in the same way as a 1920’s football match—has something to do with it.
Whatever the case may be, and whether it’s dressed up or not, the sweatshirt has more potential today as a power piece today than ever before. (Don’t hesitate to wear one under a sport coat, by the way.) A merino sweater has very little on a trim, well-made sweatshirt in a classic tone—the latter is arguably a bit more of-the-moment, and certainly more easygoing. In short, it’s come a long way from the locker room.